For institutions of higher learning in the U.S., the words "colleges" and "universities" are often used interchangeably. So what is the difference between college and university?
There are some key differences and useful distinctions to be made between "college" and "university".
Both colleges and universities are valid higher education institutions. High school students should decide whether to attend either a college or university aligned with their academic and career goals.
- A University is a collection of colleges offering graduate and undergraduate degrees.
- A College can mean an individual college within a university, community colleges, or standalone institutions of higher learning, such as a Liberal Arts college.
The main difference between any given college and university is in the variety of subjects, and the levels of degrees offered.
By and large, colleges offer undergraduate programs, and universities offer undergrad and graduate programs. Universities are the main schools to offer graduate degree programs.
Standalone colleges, such as Liberal Arts colleges, put the emphasis on undergraduate education and offer largely only undergraduate programs. Universities, for example research universities, emphasize research, which is an emphasis in graduate programs. Universities offer graduate degree programs, such as master's and PhD degrees, and as such have graduate students.
This difference means that standalone colleges generally offer fewer programs, and they're usually undergraduate degrees. Students attending a university likely have more research opportunities as they get into graduate studies.
College vs University: The Difference Between College and University
Liberal Arts Colleges
There are a number of standalone colleges in the nation. A good example of standalone colleges include Liberal Arts colleges. There are approximately 200 Liberal arts colleges in the U.S. They offer undergraduate degrees, such as associate's and bachelor's degree programs in the humanities, arts, social sciences, history, theology, philosophy, and related subjects.
These colleges are for students who want to pursue a liberal arts undergraduate education. Liberal arts colleges will likely accept international students who qualify for admission. Prospective international students should do a school search to see which schools have a large international student body.
See our rankings:
Colleges that focus on undergraduate teaching, such as community colleges and junior colleges, aren't part of universities. Students can attend a local community college to get an undergraduate degree. This can be a good choice for students wanting to get their general education courses, such as an associate degree.
See our degree and school rankings:
- The Best Community Colleges in California
- The Best Online Colleges for Associate’s Degrees
- The Best Online Associate’s Degrees for Careers
What is a University
Most colleges are within a larger university. Students who are admitted to a university will attend their classes at colleges within the university. Students may change majors and attend a different college within the same university. Universities can offer graduate programs of all varieties, such as master's degree programs and often doctorate programs.
There are different kinds of universities, though some categories overlap. The categories are research university, ivy league university, private universities, public universities, and technical universities.
Private universities are not funded by tax payers. Public universities are funded by tax revenue and are owned by the state.
One way to think about the difference between a college and university is to think of the entirety of all institutions of higher learning as being made up of colleges. If a group of colleges are collected together and united under a common name, purpose, and governing body, then their unity forms a university. If the college is a standalone college, then it's a higher education institution in its own right, governing itself, with its own accreditation.
The idea behind a university is that it encompasses the universe of learning. A university is supposed to include all (or many) subjects - a "universal" place for knowledge. "Universe" was thought to comprise all that exists (before the multiverse was devised), and University was conceptually a repository of the world's knowledge, to be used for research and teaching students. In short, a university can teach a wide variety of subjects.
The best way to make sense of the difference is to look at individual instances.
For example, Yale University has 14 residential colleges:
- Berkeley College
- Branford College
- Davenport College
- Ezra Stiles College
- Grace Hopper College
- Jonathan Edwards College
- Morse College
- Pauli Murray College
- Pierson College
- Saybrook College
- Silliman College
- Timothy Dwight College
- Trumbull College
Often individual colleges are oriented around a category of study, such as The College of Engineering, The College of Medicine, etc. And these colleges are situated within a larger university.
A university is the governing entity of its respective colleges.
A university can be accredited by a national or regional accreditation body, and an individual college can have an accreditation that's pertinent to its field of study. For instance, a college that offers Cybersecurity degrees, may become accredited by the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C). This accreditation is pertinent to the college offering Cybersecurity degrees.
What is a College?
A college is a collection of specific knowledge that's centered around a subject (or category of subjects). This would include a business college for instance, which teaches business as an individual subject. A category would be something like a liberal arts college, which can teach a wide variety of subjects that fall under the category of Liberal Arts. Liberal Arts colleges may include teaching subjects such as History, Political Science, Sociology, and Women's Studies.
A good example of college vs university is Boston College vs Boston University.
College vs university for financial aid, which is best? This depends on your circumstances for need-based financial aid, relative to the amount of aid offered and how many recipients there are vying for it. Often universities can have higher amounts of financial aid available, but have a larger student body competing for it.
Sometimes individual colleges are also referred to as "Schools". These schools still operate under the auspices of the university, and is another word for "college". Though a college or school is named as such, in common use they are interchangeable.
An example of using the name "Schools" can be found within the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania has 12 schools: School of Arts and Sciences, The Wharton School, School of Dental Medicine, etc. They may well be called colleges instead of schools.
- Colleges usually offer only undergraduate, or undergraduate and some graduate degrees, such as master's degrees, but usually not doctorate programs or other advanced degrees.
- Standalone colleges put the emphasis of education on undergraduate programs.
- Colleges usually have further divisions within them, which are their individual Departments.
- Columbia College offers undergraduate and graduate (master's) degrees.
- Columbia College Departments: Business Administration, Computer & Mathematical Sciences, and Visual Arts & Music, to name a few.
Often a college, whether it be a standalone college or a college within a university, will have the relevant departments, for the sake of organization and cohesion, around the same overall category of study or overall discipline.
For instance, the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas in Austin has many departments which are oriented around Liberal Arts, including Anthropology, Classics, Middle Eastern Studies, Military Science, Naval Science, and others.
Often universities pre-date colleges, given that colleges may arise as new fields of study are created, due to the advent of new technologies or new discoveries in science or medicine, etc., which may necessitate creating a new college for that field of study.
Kinds of degrees at colleges and universities
Do colleges, such as Columbia College mentioned above, offer different levels of degrees, as compared to universities?
Generally speaking, universities offer all levels of higher education degrees and certificates; undergraduate and graduate programs are taken within the various colleges at the university. Whereas Community Colleges offer two year undergraduate degrees, such as associate's degrees.
The notion that universities offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, whereas colleges, such as Columbia College mentioned above, only offer two and/or four-year undergraduate degrees, is not always a sound distinction. Columbia College, for example, offers master's degrees. But generally speaking, universities are more than likely to offer all levels of degrees, whereas individual colleges probably don't. Columbia College, for example, does not offer doctorates.
Origin of University
The origin of the word "university" is from the Latin "universitas" which is where we get the word "universe", which means "whole". Universe means the entire space in which we and all things exist. If something is universally true that means that something is true across the whole of its parts or wherever it is found. "Uni" is the prefix, which means "one", like a unicycle has one wheel, or unity is when two or more things come together into one.
Academic origin of University:
"In the academic sense, a shortening of universitas magistrorum et scholarium 'community of masters and scholars'"Online Etymology Dictionary
Origin of College
From the Latin word collegium
"organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit," especially "body of scholars and students within an endowed institution of learning," also "resident body of ecclesiastics supported by an endowment," from Old French college "collegiate body" (14c.) and directly from Latin collegium "community, society, guild," literally "association of collegae," plural of collega "partner in office," from assimilated form of com "with, together"Online Etymology Dictionary
An example of a corporate group being referred to as a college can be seen with the Electoral College in the U.S. election system.
University is the older term, dating back to circa 1300, whereas College dates back to the late 14th century.
How Endowments Work
A charitable donor may give money to a particular college, or to a university as a whole, which is referred to as an endowment. Usually the money that a college has is pooled with money from the other colleges within that university into one fund, which is administrated by the university. This is usually how it works so that all money in a university's endowment is handled with a consistent investment strategy.
Though donors may specify that certain amounts be spent on a particular college. For example, a donor may require that the donation create a merit-based or need-based scholarship fund that's dedicated to students within a particular college.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is better university or college?
At universities, students learn and earn degrees within certain colleges or schools, and at standalone colleges that aren't part of a university, students learn and earn degrees within that college. So in both regards, students learn within a college setting. So the question of which is better university or college is a bit of a false distinction at the granular level.
Which is better with respect to having more prestige, a university or a college? Then it depends on which college and which university is in question, and it depends on what subject the degree is in, at what degree level, and the interpretation of these by the person who is deciding the question. In short, this amounts to a question of subjective perception, and university or college is often a distinction without a difference.
Should you go to college before university?
Students pursuing a bachelor's degree will need basic classes as part of the bachelor's program. These classes usually pertain to the first two years of study. These classes can amount to an associate's degree. An associate's degree, or almost all basic classes, can be taken at a community college. There are benefits to attending a community college, or sometimes referred to as a college. The tuition is lower, which saves money.
Often times the credits but not the letter grade will transfer to the university, which means that a low but passing grade of a class taken at the college won't negatively affect the grade point average at the university. The student will still get credit for the class credits going towards the bachelor's degree. Students can take classes that are difficult at the community college and still maintain a high g.p.a. at the university, no matter that they made a low (but passing) grade at the community college. Always make sure that the university accepts the transferred courses from the community college, and check that the credits for the community college classes are accepted without the letter grade.
Is college harder than university?
Yes and no. It depends on the subject, the degree level, and the capabilities, aptitudes, and willingness of the student to learn and put in the requisite effort. Colleges are usually situated within a university, and universities are made up of colleges, so the question is a bit of a false dilemma. Students are enrolled at a university but are taking classes at a college that's part of the university.